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Greg Hardy has 18 1/2 sacks over two seasons, but the defensive end has to beat the rap that he takes plays off.
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This article appears in the August 17, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated
Kentrell Lockett could only frown while watching the BCS championship game last January. As Florida rolled over Oklahoma, the Ole Miss defensive end thought of his team's victory over the Gators at the Swamp three months earlier. "It was kind of disappointing," Lockett says of seeing Florida win it all. "What can they do that we couldn't do? Why not us?"
Lockett knew why. The stunning upset of the Gators was sandwiched between home losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina, two schools that would finish 7-6. Championship teams don't lose such games. If the Rebels hope to live up to the hype produced by the win over Florida and a Cotton Bowl whipping of a Texas Tech team that entered the game 11-1, they'll have to be more consistent.
Quarterback Jevan Snead, wideout Dexter McCluster and coach Houston Nutt's Wild Rebel formation will get most of the attention, but to win its first SEC title since 1963, Mississippi will need better play from a defense that finished last in the conference against the pass (221.7 yards) in 2008. Week in and week out that unit has to maintain the degree of intensity it mustered in the wake of an emotional halftime at Alabama last October.
After Ole Miss allowed 24 first-half points to the second-ranked Crimson Tide, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety Jamarca Sanford lit into their teammates in the locker room. The Rebels didn't give up another point that day, and though their comeback fell short (Alabama won 24?20), they held their remaining opponents to 12.5 points per game as they won their last six.
Jerry and Sanford have moved on to the NFL, but the attitude they helped instill in the Ole Miss defense remains. Even senior defensive end Greg Hardy, a ferocious pass rusher long derided for taking plays off, has come around, says defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. And there's depth up front in speedy ends Hardy, Lockett and Marcus Tillman, plus 300-pound tackles Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott and Jerrell Powe.
"We're really unsatisfied after last year," Lockett says. "We have more phenomenal feats to come."
-- Andy Staples
Issue date: August 17, 2009